Robust detection of immune transcripts in FFPE samples using targeted RNA sequencing
Current criteria for identifying cancer patients suitable for immunotherapy with immune checkpoint blockers (ICBs) are subjective and prone to misinterpretation, as they mainly rely on the visual assessment of CD274 (best known as PD-L1) expression levels by immunohistochemistry (IHC). To address this issue, we developed a RNA sequencing (RNAseq)-based approach that specifically measures the abundance of immune transcripts in formalin-fixed paraffin embedded (FFPE) specimens. Besides exhibiting superior sensitivity as compared to whole transcriptome RNAseq, our assay requires little starting material, implying that it is compatible with RNA degradation normally caused by formalin. Here, we demonstrate that a targeted RNAseq panel reliably profiles mRNA expression levels in FFPE samples from a cohort of ovarian carcinoma patients. The expression profile of immune transcripts as measured by targeted RNAseq in FFPE versus freshly frozen (FF) samples from the same tumor was highly concordant, in spite of the RNA quality issues associated with formalin fixation. Moreover, the results of targeted RNAseq on FFPE specimens exhibited a robust correlation with mRNA expression levels as measured on the same samples by quantitative RT-PCR, as well as with protein abundance as determined by IHC. These findings demonstrate that RNAseq profiling on archival FFPE tissues can be used reliably in studies assessing the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy.